Last month, schools returned, and across the country students and teachers set their alarms and packed their backpacks in preparation for a new year. As they went about their back-to-school routines, most were unaware that concerted attempts are underway to undermine progress toward LGBTQ+ inclusion in the Irish education system.
There were letters to schools, leaflets distributed on the streets and furious Tweets, all united by their intent to remove any trace of LGBTQ+ identities from education - all tactics adopted by hate groups and far-right bad faith actors intent on spreading hate, cultivating fear and causing division.
I’ve been here before – as many of you have. During the Marriage Equality referendum, there were sinister and hateful attempts to disrupt and divide. What is happening now is a global movement organised around anti-migration and anti-LGBTQ rights, and it’s happening in our backyard.
As we saw in communities from Ballymun to Westport dealing with anti-migration protests, collective responses work. Solidarity is key. We, as an LGBTQ+ community, need to come together in the face of this global movement and attempts to roll back our rights.
It’s been 20 years since Belong To opened its doors to provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ young people to find support and acceptance. Through campaigning and education, we are working to reach past disinformation and polarisation to help people understand the life experiences of the LGBTQ+ young people we work with. And the reality of their experience is stark.
Online hate is spilling into real-world harm. We’ve read about assaults, harassment, abuse and threats. The impact of this on the young people we work with is palpable. We spoke to 1,208 LGBTQ+ students through our School Climate Survey in 2022. They told us of their experiences of bullying and physical, verbal and sexual harassment because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. They told us that they avoid certain school spaces, such as lunchrooms and bathrooms, and that 76 percent don’t feel safe at school in general.
When we face challenging times like these, it is in coming together and connecting that we see real, progressive change. At Belong To, we are working to counter this hate through education, legislation and conversation. We create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ young people in their homes, schools and communities.
We are working directly with over 100 post-primary schools through our LGBTQ+ Quality Mark initiative. We meet with everyone in the school. We want to make sure there are as many staff members who understand LGBTQ+ identities in a school setting as possible. So far this year, we have trained over 2,000 educators in person. But training alone is not enough. To truly embed a safe and supportive culture for LGBTQ+ students, school policies and practices need to be adapted to build a culture of inclusivity.
Next month, our annual Stand Up Awareness Week campaign takes place in post-primary schools across Ireland, spreading a message of allyship and solidarity. Youth services nationwide have joined us for our Rainbow Award to create inclusive, safe services for LGBTQ+ youth. Online, we focus on empowering LGBTQ+ young people to take back social media by #BlockingTheBad and #FeedingTheGood through the It’s Our Social Media campaign. We amplify the voices of LGBTQ+ youth through our policy submissions, and we were proud to see our key recommendations on LGBTQ+ inclusion, consent, and online safety included in the new Junior Cycle SPHE curriculum.
We don’t do this alone. We work in collaboration with stakeholders in the education sector to inoculate against anti-LGBTQ+ school campaigns that attempt to mainstream hate within schools through letter-writing campaigns and online disinformation. We partner with coalitions such as the Hope and Courage Collective and Trans Equality Together, with members from a wide range of civil society organisations. Only when we come together and unite can we make change. The writer Rebecca Solnit says, “Your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away.”
If you would like to learn more about the work of Belong To and stay up-to-date, sign up for their newsletter at www.belongto.org